Play is free, is in fact freedom. -Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (“the playing human”).
Last year, my wife and I spent a few days in Seattle on the tail end of a conference at which I had the opportunity to speak. We did several touristy things there—went on guided tours, visited museums—but our favorite experience was when we took a ferry to a nearby island, turned off the GPS in our rental car, and just drove. There was no agenda—we just explored, stopped when and where we wanted to, and took in the sights of a place we’d never seen before. My vacations are rarely restful. My philosophy is generally to pack as much activity into them as possible, and yet this playful excursion was the most enjoyable experience of our trip.
While all games invite us on temporary vacations from reality, ‘Breath of the Wild’ encourages us to take our vacation off script.The first thing that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild asks players to do is simply play. While every game asks this of the player, few games do so with as much sincerity and in the purest sense of the term. Most games—particularly open world games—do not afford nearly as much freedom to the player as they purport. They give us massive worlds to subdue and explore while telling us exactly how to subdue and explore them. Rather than playfully engaging, what we find ourselves doing in videogames most often is following their carefully laid out instructions. Our videogames tell us exactly what to do and how to do it, and we obey.
Early in the game, Breath of the Wild asks players to climb to the top of a tower to get a better view of its world. Rather than marking out the player’s next objectives, the game encourages players to chart out their own path from the top. But many of the first places they mark on their map are impossible for the player to reach without fairly extensive exploration and experimentation. For example, one solution for reaching an essential location is play with the game’s cooking mechanics. Players experiment by throwing different ingredients found throughout the game world in a pot. Another key location early in the game is difficult to find, requiring players to explore the world extensively. In the process of finding this location, I found myself embarking on dozens of smaller quests and adventures, like fighting massive rock creatures, fending off Bobokins, and climbing seemingly impossible peaks.
The world of Breath of the Wild is neither simplistic nor safe. It requires responsible and careful engagement, yet also encourages players to tromp all over its world, to experiment with its mechanics—to literally throw stuff in a pot to see what comes out. While the game does explain many of its mechanics to the player in the form of subtitles and loading screen tips, the playful mindset the game encourages from the very beginning spawns dozens of delightful stories players could not have expected.
While videogames give us massive playgrounds, they often actively discourage us from roaming them playfully. While all games invite us on temporary vacations from reality, Breath of the Wild encourages us to take our vacation off script. The playful mindset that permeates Breath of Wild feels less like work and more like rest.